Does the allure of a New England summer retreat with an old hotel and a mysterious cold spring hold any pull? If so, then it’s time to take a dip into the deep end of the pool with The Drowning Kind! The bond of sisters, family dynamics and hidden diaries swirl through this horror novel that will keep you asking, “what’s next?” For those nights you just don’t want to fall asleep.
Be careful what you wish for.
When Jax receives nine missed calls from her older sister, Lexie, she assumes that it’s just another one of her sister’s episodes. Manic and increasingly out of touch with reality, Lexie has pushed Jax away for over a year. But the next day, Lexie is dead: drowned in the pool at their grandmother’s estate. When Jax arrives at the house to go through her sister’s things, she learns that Lexie was researching the history of their family and the property. And as she dives deeper into the research herself, she discovers that the land holds a far darker past than she could have ever imagined.
In 1929, thirty-seven-year-old newlywed Ethel Monroe hopes desperately for a baby. In an effort to distract her, her husband whisks her away on a trip to Vermont, where a natural spring is showcased by the newest and most modern hotel in the Northeast. Once there, Ethel learns that the water is rumored to grant wishes, never suspecting that the spring takes in equal measure to what it gives.
A modern-day ghost story that illuminates how the past, though sometimes forgotten, is never really far behind us, The Drowning Kind “is satisfying on every level: Marvelously chilling, elegantly written, a true page-turner” (Janelle Brown, New York Times bestselling author).
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Chapter One chapter one
June 14, 2019
How are things going at school, Declan?” I asked.
Declan was hunched over a drawing he’d been working on for the past twenty minutes, showing no sign of having heard me.
He was my last appointment of the day. The client before him had been a fourteen-year-old girl with PTSD—listening to her detail her abuse was always gut-wrenching. I usually made sure she was my last appointment, because after an hour of helping her navigate trauma and work on coping mechanisms, I was drained, sick-feeling and headachy. But it was an extra-busy week—too many kids and too little time—so I’d scheduled Declan at the end of the day. Things had been going so well with him lately that I’d actually been looking forward to our session.
I’d been seeing Declan for nearly eight months. For the first three, he had sat drawing, giving monosyllabic answers to all my questions. But then, in the fourth month, we’d made a breakthrough. He’d started talking. He’d drawn a picture of a bird’s nest and in it, three blue eggs. Resting in with them was a smaller, speckled brown egg.
“Robin’s eggs?” I asked, pointing at the blue ones. He nodded.
“But what’s this brown one?”
“Cowbird egg,” he said. “Cowbirds don’t make nests of their own. The females lay eggs in other birds’ nests.”
“For real?” I asked. “What happens when they hatch?”
“The mother robin or blue jay takes care of it, treats it like the others. But it’s not like the others.”
This led to a discussion about what it might feel like to be the odd one out, to not belong. Declan loved animals and had an encyclopedic knowledge of animal facts, and I learned to use them as a springboard for our discussions—I even added nature books and field guides to the shelves in my office for us to look through together. Soon, he was opening up about his father’s abandonment, and how his mother continued to lie to him about it—to say he’d be back any day, or that he’d called to check in on Declan and had told her how much he missed his son. “It’s all a bunch of stupid lies,” Declan told me. “She’s always telling these crazy stories that I know aren’t true. She thinks she’s protecting me, but really she’s just lying.”
Declan had come to trust me, to share things that he wasn’t able to share with anyone else. But today, it seemed we were back to square one.
I tried to relax my shoulders, put aside my fierce headache and focus on figuring out what was going on right now with this little boy who sat at the small table in my office, studiously ignoring me. The drawing paper was crumpled in places, damp from his sweaty hand; he was grinding the blue crayon into angry, cyclonic swirls. I studied his face, his body language. His dark hair was tousled. His breathing was quick and shallow. The crayon broke in two. He picked up both halves, clenched them in his fist, and continued to scribble hard.
“Did something happen at school?” I asked. “Or at home? Anything you want to tell me about?” I felt like I had a spike going through my left eye. Even my teeth ached. I’d been getting migraines since I was twelve, and had learned there wasn’t much that helped them other than holing up in a dark, quiet place, which wasn’t an option right now.
Declan was nine years old. He’d been to three schools in the last year, but we’d finally found one that seemed to be a perfect fit—small, alternative, and with a nature-based curriculum that he loved. His mother and I had pushed hard to get him accepted, meeting with the principal and the behavioral specialist, convincing them to take a chance. Declan seemed to be thriving. He was doing well with academics and fitting in socially. Students spent half the day outside; there was a community nature center, gardens, and a pond. They’d been raising their own trout from eggs—Declan gave me weekly trout updates during our sessions. They were nearly big enough to release, and the whole school was going to have a big party on the last day and release the fish into the pond. Declan had been so excited: Little fish he’d watched hatch were ready to leave the tank.
“How are the trout doing?” I tried.
He scribbled harder, keeping his eyes on the paper. “I had a dream about them. A bad dream.”
“Yeah?” I leaned in. “Can you tell me about it?”
He frowned, stared down at the furious swirls. “They weren’t who they said they were.”
I took in a breath. Rubbed at my left eye, which had started to water. “Who weren’t? The trout?”
He nodded. “They were something else. They’d turned into something else.”
“What did they turn into?”
He didn’t answer, just pursed his lips tighter.
“Dreams can be scary,” I said at last. “But they’re only dreams, Declan. They can’t follow you into real life.”
He looked up at me. “Promise?”
“Promise,” I said. “The fish in your class, they’re still the same beautiful trout they always were, right?”
He looked up and gave me a half smile. “Right,” he said. “They are.”
“And you’re going to let them go in the pond next week, right?”
He nodded, started putting all the crayons away. He took the drawing, crumpled it up, put it in the trash.
“Are you feeling sad about letting them go? Worried, maybe?”
He thought a minute. “No. It’s time. They’re meant to be free, not live in a tank.”
“And you’ll still be able to see them,” I said. “They’ll be in the pond. You can go visit them anytime you want.”
He nodded. “Ms. Evans says we can even catch them in nets if we want, but I don’t think it’ll be that easy, do you? If I was one of those fish, I wouldn’t let anyone catch me ever again.”
He spent the rest of the session talking excitedly about all the activities planned for the final week of school: the trout release, a picnic, a field trip to the science museum. When he left, his mom and I confirmed his appointment for next Friday.
“Have a great last week of school,” I told him.
As I was closing up my office for the night, I pulled the picture out of the trash. I opened up the paper and smoothed it out. He’d drawn what appeared to be a turbulent sea with big, dark fish. His nightmare trout? They had black eyes, open mouths with jagged teeth. Some had long tentacles. And there was a little stick figure in with them, sinking, being pulled down by the tentacles, drowning. Himself?
I looked closer. No. This was not a little boy with dark hair and eyes. This was a woman with long black hair, a white shirt, and gray pants.
It was me.
I unlocked the door to my studio apartment, shouldering my way in, my laptop bag bulging with my work computer and notes. I set it down on the floor and attended to the first order of business: pouring myself a very large glass of wine and taking three ibuprofen. I took my first fortifying sip, then went over to the bed, stripped off my social worker outfit, and put on sweats and a They Might Be Giants T-shirt. My ex-boyfriend, Phil, had bought the shirt for me. Phil enjoyed outings of all sorts—concerts, plays, basketball games. I was more of a stay-at-home-and-watch-Netflix kind of gal, but Phil insisted that going out on proper dates was something normal couples did, so I went along with it. Phil was long gone, but the T-shirt was still going strong.
As I settled in on the couch and put my head back, I thought of Declan’s words: They weren’t who they said they were. And his drawing. I made a mental note to call the school on Monday to check in with his teacher, Ms. Evans, and see if she’d noticed any changes in his demeanor.
My job could be stressful as shit, but it had its good days, too. And on the good days—the breakthrough days when a cowbird was not just a cowbird or when a girl came into my office grinning, saying she’d used the techniques we’d been working on to get through a panic attack at school—it was all worth it. Even though I’d been in private practice for a little less than a year, my schedule was always full, and I had a waiting list of clients. Sadly, there was no shortage of messed-up kids. I gravitated toward the tough cases—the kids everyone else had given up on. My undergrad was in psychology, and I worked in community mental health out of college for several years before deciding to go back to school for my master’s in social work. I did it while working full time, taking night classes, filling my weekends with reading and writing. My area of focus was always kids.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out why I’d gotten into this line of work. And it was something my own therapist, Barbara, was fond of pointing out: “You’ve never gotten over the fact that you couldn’t fix your sister when she got sick. You couldn’t save her, so you’re trying to save all these other kids.” I’d been seeing Barbara since my undergrad days and was pretty sure she knew me far better than I knew myself—not that hard, since I rarely pointed my carefully honed skills of observation and insight at myself, figuring it was far more productive to save it for my clients.
I opened my eyes, took a sip of wine, and noticed the digital answering machine was blinking. Nine new messages. My stomach knotted.
I knew exactly who it was without needing to push play: Lexie. And if she’d called this many times, she was, no doubt, off her meds again. When she was off her meds, she forgot that we didn’t talk anymore. That we were now properly estranged.
As if on cue, the phone rang again—call number ten. I reached for it—following some deeply ingrained instinct, the need to connect with my sister—then stopped myself.
“Jax? Jax!” she shouted into the machine. “The measurements don’t lie. It’s science! The fucking scientific method. Construct a hypothesis. Test your hypothesis.”
I could go months without hearing from her, then all at once, I’d get a burst of Lexie. It was like all of a sudden, she remembered: Hey, I’ve got a sister. Maybe I should give her a call and say something really fucking cryptic.
And the truth was, we’d barely spoken at all over the past year or so. Since Gram died—a heart attack while in Arizona, the one vacation she’d ever taken—and left most of her savings to Lexie, as well as her huge house, Sparrow Crest, the place we’d loved so much when we were kids and dreamed of one day living in together. Aunt Diane got a small chunk of the money, though she was doing fine financially and didn’t need it. Me, ass-deep in student loan debt, driving a fifteen-year-old car and living in a shoebox apartment on the other side of the country: I got my grandfather’s old coin collection and some first-edition books. None of it turned out to be worth a thing. It was petty, feeling furious and scorned for being left out of the will; my sister had always been everyone’s favorite. I knew it but couldn’t help it. I was pissed off and tired of pretending that I wasn’t. I stopped calling to check in on Lexie. I made excuses for not visiting the house that was now her house. I relied on our aunt Diane to keep me informed on Lexie’s life back in Brandenburg. Barbara encouraged me to set boundaries, to distance myself from my sister. She told me that distancing myself from my sister was the healthiest choice I’d made in years, one that both Lexie and I were sure to benefit from. “Lexie needs to learn to take better care of herself, and you jumping in to help her all the time isn’t helping her. And you, Jackie, need to focus on your own life and well-being. You need to learn who you are outside your sister’s orbit.”
It still didn’t feel right, not picking up the phone. Part of me longed to answer, to reconnect with my sister, to apologize for being such a shit over this past year; to tell her I’d made a terrible mistake.
“Over fifty meters!” Lex was shouting, fast and furious, as I sat sipping my wine.
“Seven yesterday, over fifty today,” Lex said, nearly breathless with frenzy. “Oh, Jax, you’ve gotta call me. No, better yet, you’ve gotta get on a plane. You’ve gotta come see this. Please, Jax! You’re the only one who would understand this!”
She clicked off. Less than a minute later, the phone rang again.
Lexie didn’t have my cell number. I told her, via Aunt Diane, that I’d given up my cell phone, that the bills were too high, and I was going to be one of those old-school landline people who used an answering machine.
“Jax?” Lexie said into the machine. “I know you’re there. I can feel you listening.”
I turned the volume all the way down. There was no way to mute it, but I could lower it to a dull murmur. Guilt gnawed away at my stomach as I walked away from my sister’s disembodied voice, poured myself the hottest bath I could coax from the old water heater in the basement, complete with a handful of calming salts. I shut the door, tuned the radio to jazz, and did my best to forget all about my sister. I watched the faucet drip into the tub, saw the rust stains years of leaks had left in the old porcelain. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and went under, trying to still my mind, the water filling my ears and nose, muffling the world around me.
Hours later, the bottle of wine was long gone; I’d had a dinner of cheese, crackers, and olives and passed out on the couch watching The Body Snatcher. My sister had stopped calling around eleven.
The dull ring of the phone woke me a little before one. I was still stretched out on the couch, but Boris Karloff was gone and there was an exercise infomercial on. My mouth tasted like wine, and my stomach churned unpleasantly. My head still ached.
“Jax?” Lexie cooed into the machine. Even though I’d turned it down as low as it would go, I still heard her. “This is important. The biggest thing that has ever happened to me. Or to anyone. This changes everything.”
I stumbled off the couch, reached for the phone. By the time I picked it up, my sister was gone.
The next morning, after half a pot of coffee and three Advil, I sucked it up and called my sister. She didn’t answer. I left a message, apologizing for not getting back to her sooner. I lied and said I’d been away overnight and had just gotten home. I had a cover story figured out—a conference in Seattle on mood disorders. I probably wouldn’t need it—Lexie didn’t ask questions about my life, especially not when she was manic; she was too caught up in her own drama.
“Call me back when you get this,” I said. “I’d love to catch up.”
I let myself imagine it: How easy it would be to fall into the familiar patter of conversation with her; how comforting to slip back in like there had never been a rift.
But it wouldn’t be like that, not really. Lexie was off her meds, and I’d be thrust into the role of coaxing her to get back on them, to go see her doctor, to seek help. I could already hear Barbara’s advice: “Boundaries, Jackie. Remember your boundaries.”
I went through my usual Saturday routine: the gym, grocery shopping, a trip to the dry cleaners. I called her again before lunch. Then in the afternoon. I imagined her at Sparrow Crest, looking at the ringing phone, too wrapped up in her own mania to answer. Or, maybe she was being petty. You don’t pick up for me, I don’t pick up for you.
“It’s me again,” I said to voice mail. “If you’re mad at me, I get it, but do me a favor and call me back anyway, okay?” My words were clipped, annoyance coming through loud and clear. Around three, I was actually worried enough, or maybe I was just pissed off enough, to call Aunt Diane.
“Lexie is off her meds again,” I said instead of hello.
“Is she? I haven’t heard a peep from her. Not a single message.”
Odd. When my sister had a manic episode, she called everyone, starting with my father and Diane. “I guess that makes me the lucky one,” I said. “She’s left me over a dozen, none making sense. And now she’s not answering her phone.”
“Do you want me to go check on her? I’m heading out that way this evening. There’s a poetry reading in Hanover.”
“I’m not getting all hoity-toity intellectual. Are you imagining me all beatnik with a black turtleneck and beret? I’m actually in hot pursuit of a woman—a poetry lover.”
“Really?” I snorted into the phone. Our fifty-six-year-old aunt had divorced our uncle Ralph ten years ago, come out of the closet, and now seemed to be with a new woman each week, “making up for lost time.” Diane usually called me at least once a week to check in, but it had been over two weeks since I’d heard from her. I figured either she was super busy at work or caught up in one of her brief, feverish flings.
“Nothing like wine, a bookstore, and a little poetry to open one up to the powers of love.”
“I’m not sure how much love has to do with it,” I said.
“‘What’s love got to do with it?’” she sang, doing her best Tina Turner. Then she stopped, chuckled. “Are you calling it a secondhand emotion? Speaking of which—” She paused, seemed to hesitate, then plunged ahead. “Have you heard anything from Phil?”
I blew out an exasperated breath. “Phil and I have been officially over for nearly a year now.”
I closed my eyes, saw his face when I’d told him it was finally over. His normally ruddy cheeks went pale, his lips turned blue like he’d forgotten to breathe. We were in the grocery store, of all places, and he had been pointing out for the millionth time how much easier it would be if we moved in together, so we wouldn’t need to buy things like separate toothpaste and bags of coffee and toilet bowl cleaner. We were in the toothpaste aisle when I told him that I couldn’t ever be the person he was asking me to be, the person who would share everything with him.
“I know,” Diane said. “But you said he was still calling. I thought maybe...”
“You’d decide to give him a second chance, Jax. You’re far too young to be playing old maid. He was a good one.”
This was too much.
“You never even met him!”
“And whose fault is that?” she asked. “You two were together what, like three years on and off, and you never once brought him home.”
I stiffened. This was one of the many ongoing arguments I’d had with Phil before I finally had the sense to break things off. I wouldn’t let him meet my family. I was too closed off. Not willing to commit or make myself emotionally vulnerable.
I wouldn’t even let him come with me to Gram’s funeral.
“Don’t you think that’s more than a little fucked up, Jackie?” he’d asked. “How are we supposed to move forward with this relationship with all these careful walls you build around parts of your life? Jesus, you know everything about my family, and I know next to nothing about yours.”
But these were learned behaviors, as Barbara aptly pointed out in our weekly sessions. Defense mechanisms after a lifetime with Lexie, when I had no room in my life for friends or boyfriends. I learned at a young age not to bring anyone home because she might lash out, do something awful, or tell them an unbearable secret or an out-and-out lie. When I was in fifth grade, I made the mistake of having a slumber party and inviting four girls from school. Lexie took over the evening and ended up confiding in the guests—quietly thanking them for coming. “You must be real friends to risk your own health for her,” she said. The poor girls, including my then best friend, Zoey Landover, sat wide-eyed while Lexie told them about some horrible, incurable, possibly contagious disease I had. She threw out a bunch of medical-sounding terms, and implied that it was something embarrassing that affected private parts. I tried to argue, to tell them it was all a lie, and Lex gave me a look of pity and said, “If they’re your real friends, shouldn’t they know the truth?” All four girls were calling for rides home before it even got dark.
“How can you be so mean?” I asked Lexie later, when it was just the two of us alone in the little bedroom we shared.
She smiled sweetly, stroked my hair. “I did you a favor, Jax. It was a test. To see who was really a true friend. And not one of them passed.”
Lexie always made me choose between my friends and her, and in the end, I’d always chosen Lexie.
Even after moving all the way across the country to try to distance myself, to focus on my own life; even after years of therapy and the boundaries I’d worked so hard to develop, Lexie still had that strong of a hold over me.
“I’m happy on my own, thank you very much,” I told Diane. “Besides, work is crazy. I don’t have time for romance. I can barely keep my plants alive, much less a relationship.”
“Sure. Keep telling yourself that. All work and no play makes Jax a dull girl.”
“Anyway, back to Lexie...” I said.
“I was just at Sparrow Crest two weeks ago. Your sister seemed fine. Happy.”
“Have you spoken to her since?” I asked.
“No,” Diane admitted with what may have been a tinge of guilt in her voice. “I’ve been crazy busy with work. And like I said, she was doing really well when I last saw her.”
“Well, something has changed, so a visit today would not be a bad idea if you have the time.”
“She seemed really together, honestly... she made me lemonade with fresh mint she’d picked. All the family albums were out. She had lots of questions about your grandmother, your mother, and Rita. She’s doing research, working on a family tree. Maybe that’s what she was calling you about?”
I was not going to debate Lexie’s mental state with Diane. “Just talk her into getting back on the meds again. If she gives you any shit, remind her how much she hates hospitals and that going down this no-meds path always lands her in one.”
After we said our goodbyes, I pulled out my laptop to get caught up on my client notes for the week. I couldn’t focus. I kept thinking about Lexie learning the butterfly when she was ten years old and already an exquisite swimmer. That was what Gram said: Alexia, you are an exquisite swimmer.
When we were kids, Lexie was one of those people who excelled at whatever she tried. She made everything look easy: math, science, knitting, any sport or game she tried. She’d cook something, and it would turn out perfectly and our family would ooh and ahh and say how delicious it was even though she hadn’t followed the recipe at all. “You’re a natural,” our father would say, and my stomach would clench into a hard knot because Lexie was a natural at everything, while I struggled just to get by, to get passing grades, just to get noticed. My sister was everyone’s favorite: teachers, our parents, Gram, even our friend Ryan, who made no attempt to hide the fact that he’d been totally in love with her since he was eight years old. It was easy to love Lexie. To be caught up in her radiance.
Lexie mastered the butterfly like she mastered everything: by throwing herself into it and closing everything else off. She was in the pool, windmilling her arms, dunking her face, coming up for a breath, then going back down again. Gram had given her a Speedo swimming cap because that’s what swimmers in the Olympics wore, and Lexie claimed it made her faster. She had blue-tinted goggles on, too. I sat perched on the edge of the pool, watching. When she was in the water, she wasn’t like my sister at all. The Lexie on land was like a real butterfly, flitting from one thing to the next, staying focused only long enough to briefly excel, then growing bored and moving on. But when she swam, she was pure grace and focus. She’d lost track of time and had been in way over Gram’s thirty-minute limit. She didn’t seem to feel the cold. She didn’t seem to get tired.
My legs turned to pins and needles, but I sat with my eyes on my sister, transfixed.
Her face, arms, and chest rose out of the water, her legs working in perfect dolphin kicks. Her body moved like a wave, undulating. And I thought, watching her, that my sister wasn’t moving through the water, but that she was a part of it. And I was terrified—that she could slip away so easily, choosing the water instead of me, never looking back.
The phone rang a little after five o’clock.
“Jackie?” It was Aunt Diane, and her voice sounded shaky.
I already knew it was about Lexie. She must have done something really stupid. When she was in college, she’d gone off her meds and then lined her dorm room with plastic and piped in water from the girls’ shower with a garden hose, doing twenty-thousand dollars’ worth of damage. Then, there was the time she went missing for three weeks and called from Albuquerque—
“Oh shit, did she leave any clues about where? Remember the time she—”
“Jackie... she’s dead.” Diane’s voice broke. “Lexie is dead.”
I’d misheard. That was it. Some wires in my brain got crossed and delivered the wrong message. I leaned back against the kitchen wall.
“I found her in the swimming pool.” Diane was sobbing, the words barely understandable. “I pulled her out, called 911. Terri and Ryan just got here.”
Terri was one of Diane’s oldest friends. Her mother, Shirley, had been Gram’s best friend. And Terri’s son, Ryan, was the only kid Lexie and I played with during our summers at Sparrow Crest. He was my first crush. I thought he was living down in South Carolina.
The room came in and out of focus. I felt like I was going to be sick.
“Can you come, Jackie?” Diane asked. “Right away?” More crying. “She was so cold. Naked. Her lips were blue. The paramedics couldn’t do anything. They said it looked like she’d been dead for hours. It was just like all those years ago with Rita. Oh, Jackie. Oh God!” she wailed.
I made my living hearing terrible things and always knew what to say, what needed to happen next. But now the floor seemed to ripple like water, and I slid down the wall, my legs giving out beneath me.
I closed my eyes and was back at the pool, watching Lexie practice the butterfly in her blue goggles and cap, watching her become her very own wave, the dark water swallowing her up.
I hung up, hands shaking, and ran for the toilet, throwing up until there was nothing left, then sank to the cold tiled bathroom floor and curled up, sobbing.
Behind me, the bathtub dripped, slowly and methodically, its own rusty metronome.
I tried to steady my breathing, control the short, jagged breaths.
Lexie couldn’t be dead. She just couldn’t.
Denial. Kübler-Ross’s first stage of grief.
I took in a breath, stood up, and looked in the mirror. My face was patchy, my eyes red and puffy. “Lexie is dead,” I said, trying to make the words seem more real. The tears came, blurring my reflection until my nine-year-old face looked back at me, reflected in the dark mirror of the pool.
What now? I asked Lexie.
Gram says the pool will give you wishes.
It was well past midnight, and she’d woken me up, dragged me down to the pool, breaking Gram’s rule. The night air was cool. I got goose bumps under my thin nightgown. The water was black as ever, chilling the air, smelling vaguely poisonous.
When did she tell you that? I scoffed, even as I imagined little Rita sneaking down to this same pool at night years ago.
Tonight, when she was having sherry. You were in the bath.
Gram was always sharing secrets with Lexie. Telling her things she would never tell me. Adults were often confiding in her—like Aunt Diane telling her about Gram’s agoraphobia. Treating her like she was so much older than she was. And Ryan loved to whisper secrets to her, too. I’d even caught him handing her little notes. Notes she just stuck in her pocket and never even read. It wasn’t fair.
Lexie put her face right against the water and started whispering. Her words were fast, determined, and sure. It sounded like she was chanting; repeating the same phrase over and over. I had no doubt that whatever she was asking for, she’d get it, because that’s how things always worked with Lexie.
I leaned down, too, so close that my breath left ripples on my reflection. I whispered: I wish that Lexie wasn’t always the special one. That she wasn’t the best at everything. That things were hard for her instead of always being so easy. I wish something bad would happen to her.
I blinked, and my adult face appeared again in the mirror. And there, just behind me, I was sure I saw my sister, her eyes sad and furious.
How could you?
And I understood, in those blurry seconds, that there are no secrets from the dead.